Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa Headshot
Ibrahim Sagna Headshot

Waka, Waka, It's Time for Mandarin!

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China is without a doubt here to stay in Africa! China clearly has a plan for Africa. The "sinofication" of Africa is currently taking place through immigration, the assertion of soft power and mass investments and goods. However, in many instances, it is not clear that African countries have a plan for China beyond touting the slogan "Africa is open for business." Therefore, it is necessary for Africa to develop a China specific cultural strategy; this strategy should include a subset of Africans learning Mandarin and Chinese culture in order to better understand the "Chinese way" and use that knowledge to assert Africa's interests

China's GDP is growing even faster than Africa's, so is China's soft power. There is an increase in African students studying in Chinese universities, a growing number of Chinese TV stations broadcast on African TVs, Confucius Institutes and Chinese medium schools for children. The continent's imported and inherited linguistic legacies remain English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and German -- typically due to colonization. However, based on increasing Chinese influence, one must explore whether voluntarily commanding a grasp of Mandarin could better advantage Africans' interests in the future. That said, teaching Mandarin should not replace the use of local languages or existing lingua francas. Quite the contrary, it means that to become more competitive Africans should have more options.

Money Talks

China is one of the main drivers behind "Africa rising." China has outpaced Africa's traditional partners -- and has been Africa's largest trade partner since 2009 with bilateral trade at approximately $200 billion in 2012, compared to $10 billion in 2000. Furthermore, over the past decade, China invested more than $75 billion in Africa, almost as much as the United States. Of this amount, only $1.1 billion is considered aid. In a report by the rating agency Fitch, it estimated that between 2001 and 2010 Export-Import Bank of China (EIBCZ) gave a $67.2 billion loan considerably more than the World Bank's $54.7 billion. EIBCZ has been the source of 92% of financial investments in African infrastructure between 2001 and 2007. Furthermore, African investments into China steadily increased in recent years to approximately $12.9 billion by the end of 2011, mainly in petrochemical, mechanical and electronics, and communication sectors, but also companies such as SAB Miller (a beverage producer and distributor).

The banking industry is no exception. Chinese banks and Chinese currency, Yuan Renminbi (RMB) are becoming increasingly integrated into African business. According to a report by Standard Chartered Bank, the amount of cross-border settlements in RMB between China and Africa totalled $ 5.7 billion last year. Standard Chartered predicts that by 2015, 20% of imports and exports of mainland China will be paid in RMB. Ecobank's subsidiary in Tanzania offers services such as trading in RMB in order to better capitalize upon over $868 billion of Chinese investment in Tanzania in the last decade. Additionally, Ecobank, First Bank Nigeria, BMCE Bank Standard Bank have subsidiaries in China certainly with the view to facilitate trade for their African and Chinese customers and conduct large RMB transactions. Bank of China has been operating for several years in South Africa and Zambia and gradually moved to Kenya, Angola, Mauritius and Nigeria. Furthermore, in the next five years, Bank of China plans to have trading posts in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, Morocco and Cameroon to establish a network of institutions covering the whole continent. Their objective is to provide financial services to Chinese companies operating on the ground - just as French and British banks have done.

The general ignorance of Chinese thought and the "Chinese way" is a disadvantage. Language is one way to close the gap. In fact, continuing to limit Africans' linguistic training to English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Spanish will only ensure that we are prepared to "play soccer in their field while they are ready to play rugby with us." The need for government officials to learn should be a priority, because as was witnessed in the documentary When China met Africa when the then Zambian Minister of Trade, Felix Mutuati is seen signing a contract with Chinese characters, one is forced to worryingly question how many contracts are signed without the requisite linguistic knowledge.

Chinese Africans?

It is not known how many Chinese reside in Africa. In Zambia, for instance, in 2006 there were approximately 80,000 whereas in South Africa after 1994, the approximately 300,000 Chinese residents were categorized as "Black" under the Black Economic Empowerment scheme. While the West struggle to keep jobs from being offshored to emerging economies, paradoxically China is able to capture jobs across Africa for its nationals. Chinese government policies such as providing benefits for migrant workers to Africa and their integration into African countries after projects are completed can be viewed as being in conflict with what is assumed to be Africa's strategy, that is inclusive development and the rise through employment and the spread of wealth of the bottom of the pyramid for its citizens. China's focus on infrastructure projects across the continent using Chinese labor and engineering instruction manuals is a cue that Africans who are working alongside Chinese might have to learn Mandarin, after all only .83 per cent of Chinese speak English. Additionally, since immigration controls in much of Africa is poor, it means they can easily get lost in the system. The more Chinese permanently migrate and integrate, the greater the need there will be to speak Mandarin and for Chinese to learn local languages. Already, it is not uncommon to meet Chinese who speak local African languages.

The cultural integration of Chinese language and culture across Africa will inevitably increase. China's formal promotion of Mandarin and of Chinese culture and history via the Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms is another example of China's plan to expand its culture. As pointed out by Prof. Kenneth King, this is possibly the largest language promotion project the world has ever seen, taking place in nine years since the first Confucius Institute was opened in Seoul in November 2004. Yet it is dwarfed by the sheer numbers of students worldwide, who are learning Chinese outside these institutions. China gives generous support to more than 30 Confucius Institutes teaching Mandarin and Chinese culture at many top African universities. China also runs one of the world's largest short-term training programs, with plans to send about 30,000 Africans to China between 2013 and 2015. In fact, as more Chinese media and service providers (such as Star TV, CCTV) expand into Africa, Mandarin is more likely to become an imperative for Africans to learn.

Speak Chinese and Keep Your Job!

Many complain that Chinese firms come to Africa and create local jobs for their nationals. However, few realize that China may even capture African jobs from China. We observed this in our experience advising on an outsourcing transaction with a leading French company in the business of medical data collection. The company outsourced the data entry to Senegal to take advantage of cheap labor costs (three times cheaper with greater productivity) than France. The same company conducted a trial in China and with great astonishment discovered that the Chinese employees not only cost over six times less than the French, but could do four shifts (instead of two in France) and importantly made fewer mistakes in the task of capturing doctor's notes into a digital platform. The Chinese did not speak or understand French, they simply did not find it difficult to recognize the 26 characters in the French alphabet; they were already accustomed to recognizing thousands of characters in Mandarin. After all, a well-educated Chinese reader today recognizes approximately 5,000-7,000 characters!

Our Future of Polyglots

To be globally competitive, people must communicate in the language of the majority and the language of trade. African governments have to be attentive NOT to play catchup with the 'Mandarin Must' in a few years the same way some are still playing catch up with the 'English Must' today. In fact, while many Africans already speak English, those speaking other languages have the double challenge of learning English and Mandarin. Although the French resisted English for years, France itself just took notice of the global shift and now the French are playing catchup with English and plans to push English into all schools and universities.

Some African nations have already made the drastic switch from French to English -- Rwanda and most recently Gabon, with others rumored to follow. In fact, Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, the Editor of Silicon Africa, reminds us that if French is the only language you speak, you would have access to less than 4 percent of humanity's knowledge and ideas; that is very limiting. He indicates that in the US more than 300,000 new book titles and editions are published every year. In the UK this number is 206,000 (some being books published both in the US and in the UK). In France only 63,000 new book titles and editions are published every year. This means a person who is literate in French would have 8 times less access to information and knowledge than a person who is literate in English. Meanwhile, Mandarin new book publications stack up at 100,951, almost 11 percent of worldwide publications, right after the 300,698 English publications. These language dynamics can also be witnessed on the internet. The internet has about 634 million websites pages, and 54 percent of the content is in English, over 5 per cent in Mandarin and only 4% in French.

The Bottom Line

Again, China is here to stay! Africa needs a plan for China. Certainly, being pro-active with respect to the sinofication of Africa can mean many things. This includes offering Mandarin classes to government officials which for instance the Central Bank of Zambia does. Additionally, there should be an emphasis on the youth. China is one of the very few countries that has increased the number of full scholarships for Africans to study in its universities, with a total of 18,000 students anticipated between 2013 and 2015. Flexibility is necessary for success. As such, African youth should play their cards based on the current geo-political shifts. There are pretty clear benefits in terms of economic interests. Furthermore, there are also benefits for kids as far as science and reasoning if they start learning Chinese early. Let us not forget that there are only 50,000 Mandarin characters so the earlier we start the better!

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